This summer, I found myself participating in four separate book clubs! That's a lot for anyone, yet each one offered something very meaningful and valuable.
My daughter and a friend started a smaller, more intimate club in which each reader picks a book that the others will then read. We write our thoughts and notes in a colored pen of our choosing, and others can do the same in their color.
I just finished my chosen book, "The Royal Way of the Cross," by Francois Fenelon. At first, I wasn't sure whether it was a good idea to have the only non-fiction offering, and a theological one at that, but once I started this amazing little book, I felt there was something in it for everyone.
Especially me. I've written across the years about suffering and a right attitude and approach toward suffering. Further up and further in as always (credit given to C.S. Lewis's The Last Battle for this phrase that is often in my head)!
This book particularly emphasizes how we respond to trials. I don't know how most people are feeling right now in their lives. To me, in the U.S., it feels like a kind of lull in-between happenings. Like, things are pending on the economic, political, climate, and social front and it's difficult to predict where things will go, but most of us are just trying to live our lives in this liminal space, sometimes succeeding OK, and sometimes not. Maybe that's an accurate take, maybe not.
One way or another, many of us find ourselves in difficulty. As I've written before, we perceive that kind of trial and suffering as an aberration, as a deviation from regular life, and we view it very negatively. I still totally do.
Yet, Fenelon says, for God's children, "He must needs tear from us that which we love wrongly, unreasonably, or excessively, that which hinders his love."
In His great love, He allows these trials to come. Sometimes I can see the good in them. For some reason, I've had the Garth Brooks song, Unanswered Prayers, in my head throughout the summer. Apparently, my husband has as well! The clincher lyric is, " 'Cause some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers." I'm thankful for a couple that He hasn't answered these past few years. I clearly didn't know what was best for me.
Fenelon says, "The things for which we weep would have caused us eternal woe." We don't have the cosmic perspective on what in our lives would offer great harm to our souls, but He does. "He does but deprive us of the things we prize in order to teach us to love them purely, truly, and highly; in order that we may enjoy them forever in His presence; in order to do a hundred-fold better for us than we can even desire for ourselves."
I know, I know, but it doesn't feel like this when one is in the midst of this kind of deprivation.
I was so thankful to have some understanding of a theology of suffering, that I could rely on Scriptural and theological truths to help navigate my daughter's cancer diagnosis. In that case, intellectual knowledge was super helpful for helping to shepherd us through experiential difficulty.
But, there's another level missing. "All the feels," as some say (do kids still say this??). Sometimes it's easier to navigate the big, scary, awful trials in life than some of the smaller ones. And head knowledge is not the same as a heart response.
Taking a pause here, much is being said these days about a falling away from civility, post-pandemic. I don't disagree. But, we have to understand that a significant chunk of people we encounter are under chronic stress and we all were under quite a lot of stress for years during the pandemic. Looking at any news source, one can find plenty of things to be afraid of and worry about. This is on top of the daily stressors we experience in life, or the big, major trials some of us have experienced in the past few years.
Jesus said that His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Matthew 11:30), so I know that much of this comes from the sinful world that we live in and our sinful hearts.
How do we align these hearts to properly navigate the world in which we find ourselves? Because, arguably, we'd do better spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and socially. Even physically, because our bodies can be significantly harmed by stressors and unhealthy responses to them.
Fenelon shares a truth that I wish were in fact not true, but I instead suspect that it is! He says,
He is jealous of that tyrannous 'I' which wants everything its own way. He leads them on from one sacrifice to another, from one trouble to another, and trains them to fulfill His noblest plans amid commonplace annoyances, frivolous society, and the trivialities of which they feel ashamed...no sooner has one interruption ceased than God sends another to carry on HIs work. The soul would fain be free to think upon God, but all the while it is far more really united to Him by yielding to the cross He sends than by the most glowing, tender affections.
First off, this pretty much summarizes my life for the past, say, 7 years. I am so, so thankful for the books, Scripture passages, friends, and mentors who got me on the path to study the Contemplatives and to try to emulate and practice deep times of prayer, reading, meditation, and pursuing peace. Without this, I have no idea how I would have survived during this time. I do still secretly (well, I guess, not so secretly) believe that the end goal of every genuine spiritual path is contemplative worship. I know and believe that the "chief end of man" is to "glorify God and enjoy Him forever" (Westminster catechism), but sometimes I think we sorta mean--eventually, like in the future, like when we're in heaven. A Reformed perspective definitely does not mean this--rather, glorifying and enjoying God is the purpose of our lives here and now (plus, we won't be in heaven, in this perspective. We're ruling/shepherding/stewarding on the new earth!).
Still, I'm referring to something very specific, and as always look to the Apostle John as my model. I have come to believe that the ideal model of the faith is to allow God to transform us to move from a "Son of Thunder" like John to a worshipful contemplative on Patmos and a man who writes letters emphasizing that God is love. It's not so much Do, Do, Do as Be, Be, Be. Both doing and being are important (we see the books of Galatians and James in concert with one another rather than competition), but I fear that Christianity these days is not at all erring on the side of being, so we could use a nice infusion of contemplative practice. Hooray for the John Mark Comers and Richard Fosters and Kathleen Norrises who help us along this path.
So, I would love to think that this is path is sufficient. That I can be part of the modern contemplative movement like a desert mother and fall more and more in love with God every day.
It's a beautiful dream. And yet, there's this trials part. Yet, this has always been part of what the contemplatives write about. Many of us have a willful ignorance of this fact and just want to focus on the "warm fuzzies" (as my pastor father would say) or the quiet contemplation (the way I roll) and think that that alone can get us to participating more in the fruits of the Spirit.
Fenelon says no. That even the most "glowing, tender affections" will not unite us as closely to the Lord as will the crosses He sends. He knows what best. Perhaps we should be concerned if we don't have them, because many of the contemplatives recognized trials as a type of direct love, that God is seeing fit to teach and guide through them.
I've had some wise advice lately, and it matches Fenelon's, who says that, by all means, try to "loosen your bonds" if you can and secure "hours for the refreshment of the body and mind." These are awesome, psychologically-true recommendations. Discernment is needed to know whether one is trapped and needs to loosen bonds, and refreshment of the body and sabbaths are practices that keep us functioning well. But, beyond this, Fenelon and contemplatives preach detachment and acceptance.
This is not so easy for me. I mean, I did and am doing some level of this to respond to my daughter's continued cancer treatment, the transition of her going to college, the various life transitions that occur in middle age, and the post-pandemic readjustments we are all having.
Yet, I know that I'm not fully embracing this based on how I react to the trials. Railing against them sure isn't a hallmark of detachment and acceptance!
I always say, you know when something hits a core identity issue when your emotional reaction to it is strong. Many of us have had to question who we are now, in this time and space, vocationally, spiritually, existentially.
This may be exactly where God wants us.
I'm looking forward to purchasing and reading Russell Moore's new book, "Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America." On the Russell Moore podcast, he was recently interviewed about the new book, and I was floored to hear him say that we may be in a good spiritual moment, actually. I was shocked at these words, since Moore has been so open about the pain of his transition from the Southern Baptist Church, tied to the ideology wars that our country is experiencing politically and religiously.
As I recall it, his point is the exact one that I'm making here, only I'm talking about prayer and meditation and he's talking about revival. We may picture revival as exuberant praise, and so many of us got so very excited about and encouraged by Asbury Revival earlier this year.
Yet, Moore mentioned that revival really has to do with a breaking down.
Gotquestions.com, in answer to the question, "What is Christian revival?", says,
Revival refers to a spiritual reawakening from a state of dormancy or stagnation in the life of a believer. It encompasses the resurfacing of a love for God, an appreciation of God’s holiness, a passion for His Word and His church, a convicting awareness of personal and corporate sin, a spirit of humility, and a desire for repentance and growth in righteousness. Revival invigorates and sometimes deepens a believer’s faith, opening his or her eyes to the truth in a fresh, new way. It generally involves the connotation of a fresh start with a clean slate, marking a new beginning of a life lived in obedience to God. Revival breaks the charm and power of the world, which blinds the eyes of men, and generates both the will and power to live in the world but not of the world (emphasis mine).
So, this is consistent with what Moore is saying---we forget that something needs to be broken down before the awakening can happen. And, so, Moore wonders whether we are in the exact moment for this, with so many things breaking down.
I can't wait to read more of what he has to say!
So, I'm left to conclude that Fenelon is right. We are told to take up our crosses daily (Luke 9:23). We may overly-spiritualize this and say that crosses are only for missionaries being martyred on the mission field, or something like that. But God sends us crosses and trials, perfectly suited for breaking down the particular strongholds and issues within our hearts and minds. This is indeed a daily thing, just like the Bible says.
Rather than being frustrated, we can hope and trust that these trials will bring out the best in us (if we respond to them as we should) and can pray that the same will happen for others, that spiritual reawakening will occur. Despite the doom and gloom, multiple sources are writing right now about a spiritual resurgence in younger people. The Common Grace magazine had a recent mini-section on this, as did the Wall Street Journal (https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-surprising-surge-of-faith-among-young-people-424220bd. Breakpoint describes and comments on the article here: https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2023/may/27/is-a-surge-of-faith-happening-with-young-americans/). As Breakpoint says, it may be a mixed bag if the resurgence is a vague kind of spirituality. And yet, perhaps there is hope and opportunity for our own hearts and others.
Do we have the courage to allow God to break down what is already diseased and broken in us and restore us to full health and spiritual vibrancy?